Under the Ninth Circuit’s 2020 decision in Sonner v. Premier Nutrition Corp., 971 F.3d 834 (9th Cir. 2020), plaintiffs cannot recover equitable relief in federal court if they have an adequate legal remedy. More than two years later, district courts remain divided on how to apply Sonner at the pleading stage, with some postponing the analysis to later stages and others routinely dismissing equitable claims. In courts that take the stricter view, Sonner can be a useful tool for narrowing the claims class action defendants must litigate in a federal case, particularly in California, where common consumer protection claims are largely limited to equitable remedies. That said, a pair of recent Ninth Circuit decisions highlights that defendants should carefully consider the risk that a plaintiff will refile dismissed equitable claims in state court.
Ninth Circuit Case Law: Sonner I, Sonner II, and Guzman v. Polaris Industries Inc.
In its 2020 Sonner decision, the Ninth Circuit held that federal courts sitting in diversity must apply federal equitable principles, meaning equitable relief in not available in federal court when there is an adequate legal remedy. In Sonner, that meant that a plaintiff could not proceed with California Unfair Competition Law (UCL) and Consumer Legal Remedies Act (CLRA) claims for restitution because her CLRA claim for damages provided an adequate legal remedy, even though she had voluntarily dismissed the damages claim. On September 29, 2022, the Ninth Circuit issued two published opinions that clarified several related issues.
- Legal claim need not be successful to be “adequate.” In Guzman v. Polaris Industries Inc., 49 F.4th 1308 (9th Cir. 2022), the Ninth Circuit applied Sonner to hold that the plaintiff’s CLRA damages claim provided an adequate legal remedy, even though the CLRA claim had been dismissed as time-barred. Guzman thus confirmed that the plaintiff need not be able to prevail on the legal claim for it to be adequate under Sonner.
- Sonner is not limited to that case’s procedural posture. Some district courts read Sonner I as confined to the procedural posture in that case, where the plaintiff dismissed her damages claim on the eve of trial so that she could try her claim to the court instead of a jury. See, e.g., Krause-Pettai v. Unilever United States, Inc., 2021 WL 1597931, at *4 (S.D. Cal. Apr. 23, 2021). Guzman makes clear that Sonner is not so limited: “Sonner’s holding applies . . . regardless of whether the plaintiff has tried to avoid the bar to equitable jurisdiction through gamesmanship. Nothing in Sonner’s reasoning suggested that its holding was limited to cases” with a similar procedural posture. 49 F.4th at 1313.
- Equitable jurisdiction is distinct from subject matter jurisdiction. The Ninth Circuit also confirmed that equitable jurisdiction is separate from subject matter jurisdiction. Guzman, 49 F.4th at 1314. As a result, a motion to dismiss for lack of equitable jurisdiction should be brought for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), not for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under R. 12(b)(1). See id.; Sonner v. Premier Nutrition Corp., 49 F.4th 1300, 1304-05 (9th Cir. 2022) (Sonner II).
- Dismissal under Sonner carries risk of refiling in state court. Sonner II and Guzman also show that there is a risk that plaintiffs may refile equitable claims in state court. For example, the Sonner plaintiffs refiled their case in state court, the federal district court refused to enjoin the state case, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed. The Ninth Circuit avoided resolving whether the 12(b)(6) dismissal for lack of equitable jurisdiction was a merits determination that had preclusive effect, instead holding that even if the district court could have enjoined the state case, it did not abuse its discretion in declining to do so.
Guzman, issued by a different panel on the same day as Sonner II, takes a firmer stance on the preclusive effect of a Sonner dismissal: “Because the district court lacked equitable jurisdiction over [the] UCL claim, it could not, and did not, make a merits determination as to liability,” which makes the decision binding on other federal courts “but not on courts outside the federal system.” 49 F.4th at 1314. While there is some tension in the reasoning of Sonner II and Guzman, read together they highlight the risk that a Sonner dismissal could lead to duplicative litigation in state court, especially if some legal claims remain in federal court.
District Courts Divided Over How Sonner Applies on a Motion to Dismiss
District courts differ on how to apply Sonner at the pleading stage. For example, several courts in the Northern District of California have reasoned that neither Sonner I nor Guzman addressed early-stage pleading requirements and so allowed equitable claims to survive dismissal merely because they were pled in the alternative. See, e.g., Carroll v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., 2022 WL 16860013, at *6 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 9, 2022); Yeomans v. World Fin. Grp. Ins. Agency, Inc., 2022 WL 844152, at *7-8 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 22, 2022).
Others reject the view that pleading in the alternative is sufficient: “The question is not . . . whether or when [a plaintiff is] required to choose between two available inconsistent remedies, but, rather, whether equitable remedies are available to [the plaintiff] at all.” Nacarino v. KSF Acquisition Corp., 2022 WL 17178688, at *5 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 23, 2022). Where the equitable and legal claims are based on the same facts and/or seek the same monetary relief, these courts are willing to dismiss equitable claims on a motion to dismiss. See Fan v. Home Depot U.S.A., Inc., 2022 WL 16964099, at *3 (E.D. Cal. Nov. 16, 2022).
Courts also disagree about Sonner’s applicability to injunctive relief. Some reason that the equitable jurisdiction inquiry is no different for injunctive relief than any other type of claim, and so dismiss injunctive relief claims when there is an adequate legal remedy. Others reason that while damages may adequately remedy past harm, they are incapable of preventing future harm. See Rice v. Kimberly-Clark Corp., 2022 WL 16804522, at *3 (E.D. Cal. Nov. 8, 2022) (noting split among district courts); Zeiger v. WellPet LLC, 526 F. Supp. 3d 652, 687 (N.D. Cal. 2021) (discussing differences in roles of monetary and injunctive relief).
The law of equitable jurisdiction remains unsettled, particularly at the pleading stage. Before a receptive court, Sonner-based arguments can effectively narrow the scope of a federal case, but defendants should carefully consider the risk of duplicative state-court litigation.